Tim Hunt, Sexism and the Cult of Science

The Tim Hunt affair speaks volumes about science's sexism and elitism.

Posted Jul 03, 2015

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Nobel prize winning biochemist Tim Hunt has been all over the news for weeks now. And not because of any ground breaking science, but for his sexism. In speaking in South Korea at a science journalism conference sponsored by the Federation of Women’s Science and Technology Association, he told the audience that “girls” (yes, that’s the word he spoke) are a problem in science because “You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticise them they cry." He then suggested that science labs should be single-sex.

Plenty of outrage followed, in newspaper op-eds, online publications, Twitter and other social media. Several commentators brought to light the institutional sexism of science and medicine—where women get fewer grants, are paid less than men in equivalent positions, and suffer sexual discrimination in many other ways. To cite one example, writing in The New York Times, molecular biologist Sarah Clatterbuck Soper referenced a 2014 study that found that “Women represented nearly half of the graduate students in the biosciences, but only 21 percent of full professors were female. Among the scientific elite, women make up an even smaller fraction — of the 24 Nobel laureates included in the study, two were women.” 

Hunt resigned from his honorary position at University College London, prompting some equally prominent male scientists to come to his defense. Then the woman journalist who broke the story was discredited. Then she was defended. And on it goes.

Despite all the name-calling, the incident was an opportunity to bring into prominence the toxic environment women in science have to deal with, along with some recommendations for ways to change the science training and research culture. I hope the conversation continues and leads to some action.

Some things got lost, though, in all the back and forth about sexism. Without diminishing its importance, I see (at least) two other troubling biases in Hunt’s remarks

1. The assumption that scientists are straight (or should be).

If falling in love with each other is something scientists in the lab do, why stop at segregating women? What about gay men? And gay women? Won’t their romances be just as “distracting?” Or does Hunt assume that all scientists are straight? Of would he disallow gay people from becoming scientists?

2. The elitism of science.

Shortly after the story of his remarks broke, Hunt did interview with BBC radio. He apologized, sort of. He said he was sorry, he was being ironic and joking, but he meant what he said. And then he said why:

“Science is about nothing but getting at the truth and anything that gets in the way of that diminishes, in my experience, the science." 

So, scientists are truth seekers. Hmmm. Surely, it’s a common belief, to equate science with the truth so much so that none of the commentators on Hunt’s rant even noticed it. But many, including me, are wary of any appeals to truth and are especially concerned with how science can present itself as religion in this respect. We need to be reminded that science is how scientists describe the stuff of the world—science isn’t the stuff! Or, as the late American philosopher Richard Rorty said, “Truth is what your contemporaries let you get away with.”

Indeed. Science has gotten away with quite a lot up to now. Hunt clearly believes that it’s above the law. He would take us on a path where discrimination and segregation are condoned, apparently needed for the pursuit of truth.

Just as we (the “contemporaries”) should not let scientists get away with sexual discrimination, we should not let them get away with claiming truth. No one should.